Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 18, 2022

Lionel Messi Meets His Moment

Time.  It is an essential element of every major sporting event.  That is literally the case when the game at hand is measured by a clock, like basketball or hockey or soccer.  But even in baseball or tennis or golf, the element of time helps tell the larger story of a contest.  Is it about the past or the future, a look back, with longing, or a look ahead, with anticipation? 

This is especially true for an event, like the World Cup, that is staged only every four years.  By the time 48 teams assemble in North America for the next World Cup, some of the most familiar names in soccer will be in their dotage, as least in athletic terms.  Luka Modric will be 40, Christiano Ronaldo 41.  Lionel Messi, whose seven Ballon d’Or trophies as the best male player in European soccer – though most fans would agree that effectively means the world – place him at the top of many lists as the premier footballer of all time, will be 39.  If any of them are on their national squads for the 2026 World Cup, their role will be either ceremonial, or painful to watch. 

As is always the case in all our games, a new generation of stars is eager for the spotlight as these players prepare to leave the stage.  Richarlison, the 25-year-old Brazilian forward, who plays professionally for Tottenham Hotspur, tallied ten goals in international play this year, including three in World Cup qualifying matches and three more in Qatar before Brazil was bounced out of the tournament by Croatia in the quarterfinals.  But a broad consensus of fans and soccer journalists peg Kylian Mbappé as the heir to Messi and Ronaldo.  Still just 23, his star first shone in international play four years ago, when he joined the immortal Pele as the only teenagers to score twice in a World Cup match, and, a few days later, the only teens to tally a goal in a World Cup Final, as France claimed the trophy at the Cup’s last staging with a 4-2 win over Croatia.

So it was that from the moment the contestants were set, time became not just part of the story of this year’s Final, but its central theme.  Argentina and the veteran Messi, going for the country’s third championship but the first since 1986, against France and the youthful Mbappé, trying to become the first team to repeat as titlist since Brazil six decades ago.

For the first seventy-nine minutes on the match clock, the Final was all Argentina.  Scarcely more than ten minutes remained until Messi could finally lay his hands on the tiny trophy that had remained beyond his grasp throughout his illustrious career.  He had opened the scoring midway through the first half, easily converting a penalty kick after his teammate Ángel Di María was fouled deep in French territory.  Thirteen minutes later, Messi started a rush with an elegant little side-footed pass to Julián Álvarez near midfield.  From there a long pass went to Alexis Mac Allister, who had beaten his French defender.  At the top of the box Mac Allister sent the ball across to a wide-open Di María, whose left-footed shot beat French goaltender Hugo Lloris.

The tallies seemed inevitable, for Argentina controlled most of the play and was pressuring France throughout.  But even as the thousands of fans clad in sky blue and white were raising the decibel level at Lusail Stadium, Mbappé led a furious French rally.  A burst of speed from France’s Randal Kolo Muani forced his defender to foul or allow a clean breakaway.  Now it was Mbappé’s turn to drill a penalty kick into the net, just past the desperate reach of a diving Emiliano Martínez in goal.  Then, scarcely more than a minute later, Mbappé tallied again, this time off a give and go from the top of the box.  Just like that, Argentina’s lead was gone, and the momentum was entirely with France.

Through the final nine minutes on the clock and nearly as much stoppage time, Argentina appeared to be doing nothing more than trying to hold on and force overtime, to somehow stop a story of the capstone of Messi’s career from turning fully into one of Mbappé’s surge to greatness.  Having somehow achieved that modest goal, Argentina turned to its captain for deliverance and early in the second extra period he came through.  The central figure in a three-person advance at the French goal, Messi was perfectly positioned when Lloris blocked the first shot from Lautaro Martinez but was unable to hold onto the ball.  As if drawn by a magnet it instead went straight to Messi’s right foot, which sent it back the other way, into the French net.  But Mbappé wasn’t done, and he seized the opportunity of another foul to convert a penalty with only two minutes remaining in overtime, giving him the first hat trick in a World Cup Final since 1966.

And so, after one hundred twenty minutes, the World Cup was decided on penalty kicks, the tiebreaking mechanism loved and hated, in equal measure, by fans.  The two stars went first, and both converted, though Martínez got a hand on Mbappé’s drive.  But now both Messi and Mbappé could only stand and watch, a reminder that whatever the main story of any sporting event, there are always key parts played by lesser members of the cast.  Martínez made a clean save on the second French shot, and when the next two Argentine shooters converted around an effort by France’s Aurélien Tchouámeni that went wide, the shootout score stood at 3-1.  Kolo Muani kept French hopes flickering, but Gonzalo Montiel sent the ball to the left side of the net as Lloris guessed wrong and dove the other way.  On the field, in the stands, and more than eight thousand miles and six time zones away in Buenos Aires, Argentina celebrated.

Messi ended the match with a pair of goals, and seven in total for the World Cup.  That plus the championship earned him the award as the tournament’s best player.  Mbappé’s hat trick brought his goal total to eight, allowing him to claim the Golden Boot as the Cup’s high scorer.  But this was not a day for individual awards.  The only prize that mattered was the 14-inch gold trophy that Messi, surrounded by his teammates, was finally able to raise after so many years of chasing the moment, for his country and himself.  It is easy to believe that Kylian Mbappé will again have the opportunity to do so, in four years, or eight, or twelve.  But for now, it is still Lionel Messi’s time.

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